Fear, Uncertainty, and Closures Swirl as Coronavirus Pandemic Hits Miami Restaurants

Restaurant owners and employees are living in fear and uncertainty.
Restaurant owners and employees are living in fear and uncertainty. Wikimedia Commons/Marc Averette
Miami chefs and restaurants spent the weekend cooking and serving in a state of confusion and fear as the coronavirus pandemic widened across the United States and South Florida. In many ways, the impact became more palpable with each passing moment. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on late Sunday announced that all bars, clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters must cut their capacity by half. In addition, all establishments must close by 11 p.m.

This morning, the Coconut Grove BID issued a similar order, calling for all businesses to operate at 50 percent or less capacity. In addition, all nonessential businesses must close between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Businesses that do not comply with the curfew face immediate closure.

Little Havana's Cafe La Trova announced Sunday night it would close until further notice.

"The most important thing right for us is to protect ourselves, our families, our guests, and our community," co-owner Julio Cabrera said on Instagram.

Danny Serfer's Blue Collar and Mignonette also announced they would close until further notice.

Earlier this past weekend, Ghee Indian Kitchen chef and owner Niven Patel told New Times he had to lay off five employees as it became unclear how long his slate of restaurants could remain open since federal agencies and states across the nation had urged the reduction in public gathering sizes and encouraged social distancing.

"We were down 40 percent on Friday," Patel said. "It's either lay some people off now or in a month we'll be closed. That's the reality of it."

Across social media, restaurants broadcast their concerns for the safety of their guests and staffers and promised even more stringent hygienic standards on par with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control. Yet every announcement and proclamation of "we're still open" seemed to coincide with an increase in the number of confirmed cases and death, and more calls for self-quarantine effectively halting everyday life.

The number of cases in 49 states reached at least 3,100 as of Sunday evening. Here in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the opening of a mobile test clinic to operate in Broward County, the heart of the state's outbreak. The Florida Department of Health on Sunday night announced 136 cases had been confirmed across the state, with 36 in Broward and 13 in Miami-Dade. 

Across town, restaurants searched for creative ways to continue serving and keep money moving. El Bagel partially closed its 2-week-old shop and instead launched online ordering, dishing out dozens of bagel sandwiches from its front door. Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House began selling meal kits for some of the restaurant's favorite dishes. Zak Stern on late Sunday announced his bustling café would shutter, but the bakery would offer pickup and delivery while also continuing its wholesale service and deliveries to Whole Foods locations across the region.

Still, it seems restaurants are having trouble keeping up with the acceleration of events. Just as Stern announced his plans on Instagram, the CDC recommended organizers cancel events of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks. Earlier in the week, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales required restaurants and nightclubs across the island to limit their capacity to 249 people.

Nationwide, many states have decided to effectively close restaurants and bars in hopes of slowing the viruses' spread.

New York City on Sunday announced that all bars and restaurants would only be allowed to conduct delivery business. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced Sunday afternoon that the state would order closed all bars and restaurants beginning at 9 p.m. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the same. Also on Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker banned gatherings of more than 25 people and ordered all restaurants to operate as take-out only this Tuesday until April 17. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all of the state's bars, restaurants, and wineries closed.

Though as of late Sunday such measures had yet to be announced in Miami or Florida, the looming possibility of empty dining rooms or kitchens has revealed the precariousness of the restaurant and hospitality industry and the limited ability of businesses to care for their workers during such a dramatic, unexpected interruption.

"I'm constantly thinking about how do I keep my employees safe, and by safe, I mean, keep them employed and keep the company healthy," said Michael Beltran, whose restaurants Ariete, Chug's Diner, and the recently opened Navé continued serving guests this past weekend.

A recent Eater long-form story that broke down the financials of Boston's Mei Mei revealed that the award-winning restaurant's owner, Irene Li, earned a net profit of only $22,116 on $1.2 million of gross income, or a paltry 1.8 percent. The deep dive into the restaurant's unprecedented opening of its financial inner workings revealed how little even a successful chef must work with when the unexpected occurs, never mind a crippling global pandemic.

"For us, it all goes back to the question of, have you been responsible with the money you’ve been making? I can't speak for other people, and we’ve made an effort this year to be very responsible," Beltran said. "We put a big amount of money aside to remodel Ariete and remodel Chug's, and we may need to use that money for other things."

He said that even if his restaurants closed, he would still pay his staff as well as rent and other expenses.

Downtown Miami's Jaguar Sun made the same commitment last Friday. That afternoon, chef and owner Carey Hynes said he and his staff were committed to serving guests while also furiously cleaning the bar and restaurant. Before speaking, Hynes filled his palm to the brim with hand sanitizer and rubbed it on his forearms up to his elbows like a surgeon preparing to enter an operating room.

"We'll play it by ear, but we've told our employees for ten days now that they should be saving their money, but also we've told them if they need something that we're here," Hynes said. "If we're going to close, we're to pay people, not their full wages but for at least a few weeks. The most important thing is that our employees feel like they're taken care of."

By Saturday night, the situation had shifted again, and the restaurant on Instagram announced it would be closed Monday and then switch to limited seating in its courtyard while offering take-out Tuesday.

What will happen in the coming days and weeks is unclear, as is how the city's chefs and restaurants will survive. Patel said he was forced to ask his salaried employees to take a 20 percent pay cut while he shelled out $120,000 to nearly complete construction of the permanent location of his pasta-focused Italian spot, Erba. He told workers to hold off on the final 20 percent of the buildout as things remain convoluted and confusing.

"My stomach is in my throat right now: I just had to lay off someone that literally came here from Venezuela on asylum with all the proper paperwork, and their family came into town two weeks ago with their kids," he said. "For small businesses like us, to see 40 percent down in a week and then three or four weeks like that, and you’re done."
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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson